For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t afford to take a break. I ate, breathed and slept the “no days off” mentality, and hustled my way from week to week in a blur. One by one I checked off chores, assignments, and errands — and yet I still always felt as though I was one step behind. And even now, it’s still hard to shift gears.
My life is more like cruising down the freeway in the left lane at a comfortable 10 mph over the limit with the radio blaring than it is a leisurely Sunday drive down back roads.
For me, part of what makes it hard to slow down is that I pride myself on being a useful person — a person who gets things done. I have a constant fear of being perceived as lazy if I choose an afternoon in my favorite bookstore over cleaning the house, or take an extra day off from work after vacation to get settled.
There’s always something that needs our attention, and it’s easy to feel like there’s just no time for leisure. In fact, what is leisure, anyway?
The word “leisure” comes from the Latin word licere which means to “be allowed” (it’s the same root for the word “license”). In all of our hard work to grow up into responsible adults with degrees and jobs and families, we’ve stopped allowing ourselves to take a nap, to go outside, to prioritize play or rest in any way.
All the while, we throw around words like “intentional” and “strategic” while we meal prep and block time out in our calendars and perfect our morning routines — all for the sake of having more time for leisure, time for wasting. We work hard now so that we can play later, but the list of prerequisites grows longer — and “later” never comes.
When we were kids, there was a time for work and a time for play, a rhythm built into our days and weeks by the grown-ups in charge. Suddenly, we’re the grown-ups in charge, and it seems to me we’ve forgotten an essential part of that rhythm. We’ve shrugged off the simple pleasures in life as childish and unnecessary.
It’s time we take seriously the business of leisure. It’s time we make an intentional effort to do something — anything — simply for the fun of it.
Before you think about quitting that overly demanding job or investing in an expensive mountain bike, it’s important to take note of how you’re spending what downtime you already have. Are you staring at a stack of unread novels and nonfiction while you crash on the couch at the end of the day playing cards against the computer? We can want things to be different all day long, but if we don’t confront our current habits, it’s unlikely we’ll make any real change.
I like to think about what I would do if I had unlimited free time. Where would I go and who would be with me? In this dream world, I spend my time at the different parks in my city, in local bookstores and coffee shops, in unique stores and restaurants sipping a glass of wine on the patio. You might fill your days very differently, but I’m willing to bet that what you want to do with your free time is more than scrolling through Instagram for several hours per day.
If we want more leisure — more opportunities to slow down and connect with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us — we have to be as intentional about making it happen as we are other parts of our lives.
In our house, Sundays are off-limits — no meetings, no work calls, no email, no scrambling to meet deadlines. On Sundays, we lay in bed until hunger drives us into the kitchen where we linger over homemade waffles with freshly whipped cream and berries, or toasted sourdough with salted butter and fried dippy eggs. Mass is an important part of the day, and we take long walks or flop on the couch when it invites us to settle in for a nap on rainy afternoons.
At first, I felt guilty and awkward saying no to the well-intentioned folks who were pulling for my time and attention on Sundays. But using it as a day of rest has become second nature, and on the rare occasion that something does come up, I miss that sacred wasted time.
Leisure is something we need to prioritize on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis. It’s something we need to build into the culture of our families and weave into our ordinary lives. Vacations, dinners with friends, game nights, and date nights need to show up in our calendars if they’re going to have any chance of happening for real and not just living in the imaginary place of “sometime soon” or “one of these days.”
Consistency builds habits. Sometimes I lay in bed scrolling mindlessly through social media, checking my email for the hundredth time with an unopened novel in my lap. At some point though, the book catches my attention or I see the same meme for the seventh time and I’m shaken out of my mindless stupor. With practice, I’m getting better at reaching for the novel instead of my phone, and that’s what matters. I’m learning to listen to — and act upon — the still, small voice inside, rather than get carried away by whatever happens to be blinking at me.
The investment of being intentional with our leisure time pays dividends. Doing something that brings us joy is healing and restorative in a way that numbing out on the couch for another “Harry Potter Weekend” never will be. Getting intentional about the business of having fun takes effort and energy, but it pays one-hundred-fold in joy, renewed energy, and memories.